The race for California's governor has gone from interesting to very interesting in the last few days, thanks to a "gotcha" journalism drama that stars some main players on the Golden State stage: undocumented immigrants and Catholic church.
Republican candidate Meg Whitman has a lot of (her own) money; she ran eBay for several years. She has thrown a record $119 million of her own funds into her gubernatorial campaign. She's running against Democrat Jerry Brown -- now 72, once governor of the state back in 1975-to-1983, trying for it again.
In order to win the state GOP nod, Whitman had to shore up her conservative bona fides by lashing out against illegal immigration, proposing to send everyone back where they came from. All to be expected in the Republican race in a border state like California.
But then last week, Nicandra Diaz Santillian, Whitman's long-time maid-housekeeper-babysitter, stepped forward to say that she had worked without documents for Whitman for years -- and that her boss knew all about it.
Whitman denies this -- but doesn't deny that once she found out about Santillian's illegal status a year ago, she fired her and kicked her out, even though she described the woman as "like a member of our extended family."
As columnist Tim Rutten writes in the Los Angeles Times, that's the real story. Yes, this is a piece of "gotcha" journalism: hey, Whitman hired an illegal while bashing illegals on the campaign trail! But look beyond --- look at the behavior Whitman in fact admits to: Santillian was summarily fired after nine years on the job, once her illegal status came to light. No gold watch, no stock options, no severance. Santillian alleges Whitman told her: "From now on, you don't know me, and I don't know you." Even in a border state, even in America circa 2010, this is not a profile in courage.
Just as this scene was breaking, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles walked onto the political stage. He addressed the University of Southern California's Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies a few days ago on the immigrant worker issue. As Rutten writes, "Mahony speaks labor as fluenty as he speaks Spanish." He knows the territory, from the halls of power to the alleys of the powerless.
For Mahony, retribution against illegals is unworkable morally and practically. The essence of our immigrant problem, he said at the University of Southern California, can be grasped by imagining two signs posted at our border: one says "Help Wanted," the other "No Trespassing."
We need immigrant labor, but we pretend we don't. In addition, Mahony said, there is another stark reality: at least 70 percent of America's estimated 11 million undocumenteds live in blended families -- in which one or more members (usually the children) are legal residents or citizens. How do you deal with that?
Right now, we don't -- smoke and mirrors and misplaced anger substitute for sane immigration policy ... as it always does when economic times are hard. That's the real message of the Whitman story: illegals live in the shadows now, are disposed of as it is, and no one says anything. Over the weekend, Meg Whitman complained that her old housekeeper was being used as a political pawn. Were she not running for governor, Whitman said, no one would care what happened to "Nicky."
To which Cardinal Mahony would answer: Exactly. And that's the real problem.